It’s senshuraku [the final day] of the 2016 Natsu Basho, and for the first time in many tournaments the outcome of the yusho [tournament championship] is not in question at all. Over the past year, it’s been pretty common for Day 15 to start with a single leader who, with a win or the loss of a single close competitor, could lock up the title. At the very least, there was a mathematical chance that there could be a playoff, even if it was highly unlikely. Not so this time around.
With yokozuna Hakuho’s win over yokozuna Harumafuji, and ozeki Kisenosato’s loss to yokozuna Kakuryu, it is 100% certain that Hakuho has won his record-expanding 37th yusho. You might say that his match against Kakuryu today is just for yokozuna pride, but the fact of the matter is that Hakuho has a couple of career goals that he’s still chasing that make the win more than a matter of passing interest. First of all, if he wins today and gets a perfect 15–0 record, it will be the 12th zensho yusho [no-loss tournament championship]. To put that in perspective, if you look at the list of all-time most championships in a career, number eight on that list is a tie between two Futabayama (one of the all-time greatest yokozuna) and Musashimaru (one of only two ever American yokozuna) with a total of 12. So, if Hakuho gets this, he’ll have enough that if you ONLY counted his perfect record yusho wins he’s still be in the top ten of most wins all-time and tied with two of the most famous yokozuna of all time. Additionally, as I mentioned yesterday, by winning today he’d rack up his 29th straight win, and give himself at least a possibility of taking a run at a record that’s eluded him thus far—most consecutive wins. He’d still be a long way away from the record—two and a half more full tournaments—but he’d at least have a chance.
Don’t forget, there are still lots of other meaningful matches to be played and a lot of interesting storylines to wrap up throughout the banzuke [ranking sheet]. Not the least of which is Kisenosato’s performance and what it means in the context of his overall career.
There’s no doubting that Kisenosato is one of the best rikishi of the last decade. It’s been his misfortune that this has been the decade when one of the best rikishi of all time has been fighting. In any other era, Kisenosato would have won at least half-a-dozen yusho (he’s finished second in nine of them, and likely that number will rise to ten when the day is over), and in all likelihood would have been promoted to yokozuna. While that makes for great sports talk over bar food, the fact of the matter is that Kisenosato DOES fight in this era and whenever he’s been given a chance to grab the proverbial brass ring he’s come up short. I’ve commented over the past year that he has developed a habit of losing focus or presuming victory in cases when he needed to knuckle down and take command (I often have phrased this by saying he “likes the trappings of being an ozeki, but doesn’t really want to put the work in that would make him a great ozeki”).
On the flip side, it’s usually only a couple of matches per basho that he shows this lackadaisical side, and in the current Natsu Basho in particular he has had thirteen spectacular days (even including his loss to Hakuho, in which he fought like a champion) and only one poor day. It seems unfair and unkind to measure him by that one day, particularly when he’s regularly racking up tournament totals equal to or better than Harumafuji and Kakuryu. But those two have shown in the past that they CAN put it all together for a full fortnight and win a yusho—Kisenosato never has. He’s always stumbled before he can hoist the Emperor’s Cup. And through that, they have earned their yokozuna promotions. For all he’s done, until Kisenosato has done, for as strong and competitive as he’s been for such a long time, he will remain a guy with the reputation of not being able to get the job done until such time as he proves the pundits wrong.
Kisenosato’s performance yesterday was disappointing because he proved them right again. He can mitigate that somewhat if he comes back strong today in his bout against Harumafuji, but I’m sure this basho is going to haunt him, quite possibly more than any of his nine other “almost made it” tournaments.
As for the rest of the field, there are A LOT of losing records out there. So far twenty-three rikishi have gotten 8 or more losses and are locked in makekoshi [majority of losses] (this includes three rikishi who pulled out of the tournament because of injury), while only fourteen rikishi have secured kachikoshi [majority of wins]. Four rikishi, however, enter Sunday’s action with 7–7 records and holding their fates in their own hands. Thankfully, the Kyokai was merciful and isn’t pitting any of them against each other. So I think I’m going to include all of their bouts in today’s feature matches.
M12 Takekaze (7–7) vs. M15 Endo (11–3)—Takekaze is one of the rikishi on the bubble at 7–7. If he wins today, he gets kachikoshi, if not it’s makekoshi and a demotion for him. His opponent Endo already has double-digit wins and is sure to leap up the banzuke for the Nagoya basho, but the Kyokay [Sumo Association] has dangled another possibility to keep him focused on this match. If he wins today, Endo will get the kanto-sho [fighting spirit prize]—one of three special prizes that are sometimes awarded at the end of a basho. If he loses, no special prize for Endo. (2:38)
M11 Chiyootori (7–7) vs. M14 Seiro (5–9)—Chiyootori is also one of the bubble rikishi. While he’s fighting for a winning record, his opponent seiro already has makekoshi and is almost certainly headed back down to the Juryo division next tournament. A win here, though, would help mitigate how far down he’ll sink into the lower division . . . and thus, how difficult it will be for him to fight his way back up to Makuuchi. (3:00)
M9 Sokokurai (6–8) vs. M10 Sadanoumi (7–7)—The third of our bubble rikishi is Sadanoumi. There’s a little less drama with this one as a loss will not put either him or his opponent in jeopardy of dropping out of Makuuchi. The thing is, both Sadanoumi and Sokokurai are ranked about right at M9 and M10 . . . this is the level that their skills warrant. But in sumo, there is no “holding your spot.” Because there are an odd number of matches in a tournament, you’re constantly moving either up or down . . . and so many rikishi seem to end up “orbiting” the ranking that they deep down deserve. (4:02)
Komusubi Kaisei (7–7) vs. M5 Tochiozan (8–6)—Kaisei is the only sanyaku-ranked rikishi who still has a chance at kachikoshi, meaning that if he can pull out a win today he might be the only one of the four who will still be sanyaku next tournament. Meanwhile, with the terrible records that the upper Maegashira rikishi have had this basho, even though Tochiozan is down at M5 he could make a leap up to sanyaku next basho (remember, Kaisei himself leapt up to komosubi directly from M7) . . . and a ninth win would help make that promotion more likely. (8:30)
Yokozuna Harumafuji (10–4) vs. ozeki Kisenosato (12–2)—After thirteen days of looking and fighting like a champion, Kisenosato looked like a chump yesterday. Today is his chance to show his fighting spirit and make sure that he stakes sole claim to the runner-up position for this basho. Meanwhile, Harumafuji wants to avoid a 10–5 record, which is considered pretty weak for a yokozuna. Two great rikishi with their pride on the line—that has the makings of a great match. (10:20)
Yokozuna Hakuho (14–0) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (11–3)—The yusho may be decided, but as I said above, Hakuho still has some very real reasons to give it his all in this match. On the other hand, Kakuryu has his yokozuna pride on the line . . . he wants to show that SOMEBODY can beat Hakuho, and he aims to be that somebody. Kakuryu may not be a great yokozuna, but he certainly IS a champion and that makes him a dangerous opponent. (10:47)